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Joe Biden has a presentation problem

I want to talk about Joe Biden and his unique issues presenting his presidency. You know his political position and the polls. The latest from CNN has given him 39% approval. During the disengagement from Afghanistan, public admiration began to wane. This catastrophe came as it became clear that the President was handing functional control of his domestic political agenda to his party’s progressive caucus, which fell apart and never recovered.

James Carville said the other night on MSNBC, amusingly and almost persuasively, that in the 2022 congressional election, Democrats should hit Republicans hard for their insane content — candidates who are both extreme and insane, grassroots conspiracy theorists. But even the Democrats have their weirdo quotient — extreme culture warriors, members of the Squad — and last summer the president appeared to have meddled with them. That and Afghanistan were fatal to his position, and then came inflation.

But what caught my eye this week was a little-noticed New Hampshire Journal poll. It’s always interesting to know what’s going on in the first presidential primary state, but the Journal itself seemed startled by the answer to its question: If the 2024 election were held today and the candidates were Joe Biden versus Republican Gov. Chris Sununu would you be back Mr. Sununu beat the President by 53% to 36%. Mr. Sununu is popular and that unusual thing, an energetic, moderate conservative who seems to have actual intellectual commitments. But Mr. Biden carried New Hampshire at 53% in 2020. He craters.

All politics grows out of politics, and politics is announced and argued through presentations, including, crucially, speeches. Joe Biden has a presentation problem. This is notable as his entire career has been about presentation, particularly depicting a mood. In 50 years he’s cycled through Dashing Youth, The Next JFK, Middle-Class Joe and Late-Life Finder of His Inner Progressive. But the mood he represents now is not a good one. It’s there in the New Hampshire poll. When asked if they thought Biden was “physically and mentally up to the job” when a crisis hits, 54% received “not very/not at all” and 42% “very/somewhat.” Here we all use euphemisms: “slow”, “not up to par”. If Mr. Biden’s policies were popular, no one would mind that he appears to be slowing down. But they are not.

So to the display problem. Here are some difficulties when he speaks.

When he stands at a podium and reads from a teleprompter, his mind seems to wander quickly from the meaning of what he’s saying to the impression he’s making. You can kind of see that, he’s always wondering how he’s coming across. When he catches himself, he tends to compensate with emotions.

But the emotion he seems most comfortable with publicly is outrage. One example is his response to a reporter’s question in November about the government’s plans to compensate illegal immigrant parents separated from their children at the border. Suddenly he had an angry face; He raised his voice, increased his pace, and began thrusting into the air. “You lost your child. It’s gone! You deserve some sort of compensation, no matter the circumstances.” Then he caught himself and added softly, “What that’s going to be, I have no idea.” He tried to show presence and commitment. But there’s often an “angry old man yelling at clouds” aspect.

There are little tics that worked a long time ago. He often speaks as if we are fascinated by the family he came from and that shaped him. So he speaks of the old neighborhood and the teachings. And my mom said to me, Joey, don’t comb your hair with buttered toast. This was great for a Knights of Columbus pancake breakfast in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, but not now. For all the mysticism of the presidency, people hired you to do a job and want you to be clear and have a plan. They’re not obsessed with your family, they’re obsessed with their family.

Mr. Biden tends to be extremely self-centered: “I’ll tell you straight, like I promised I always would.” Because I’m such a straight shooter. It’s better to shoot directly and not always brag. He should lose “Let me say that again.” Talking to America, no need to repeat yourself for the slow. I don’t think he’s aware that he often seems to be condescending. People will tolerate this from a politician if they think he is their moral or intellectual superior, but back down when they don’t, as in the polls.

The bigger problem for the President is that in his most important prepared speeches a lot of extremely boring false eloquence, big chunks of smooth curves and nothing sticks. Last April, at a joint session of Congress: “America is on the move again, turning danger into opportunity, crisis into opportunity, setback into strength.” It sounds like it means something – it has the rhythm and ring of good thought -, but that’s not really true. It’s the language of the 60 Second commercial, and America is turning it off. Not out of malice, but from Alice. It’s the sound of the last 40 or 50 years, which means it has had its day.

Mr. Biden has an opportunity to do something new, to reinvent his rhetorical approach. Why not, otherwise nothing worked. If he speaks, he should commit to being here now. He should be straightforward and humble.

When I think about what is needed at this moment in history, I think of the snappy objectivity, the lack of emotionality, October 22, 1962. John F. Kennedy from his desk in the Oval Office offered 18 minutes of fact and thought. “Good evening, my fellow citizens. As promised, this government closely monitored Soviet military build-up on the island of Cuba. Over the past week, unequivocal evidence has established that a number of attack missile sites are now being prepared on this captive island. . . . Now that we have confirmed and finalized our assessment of the evidence and our decision on a course of action, this government is committed to bringing this new crisis to you in full detail.”

It was bone to the bone, strong and utterly compelling. The military response he explained was compelling because it was factual and presented a clearly articulated interpretation. He provided complicated information: “The characteristics of these new missile sites indicate two different types of installations.” That way you only talk to the intelligent; his listeners were aware of the compliment. He didn’t lean towards them, but assumed they would reach him.

He wasn’t self-centered: he didn’t say “as I promised” but “as promised” because it would be vulgar to put himself first. It was “this government,” not “my government.” He said: “This nation is against war. We also stand by our word.” He explained the American position while prioritizing America over himself.

You say: well, that was a crisis, in the crisis you get to the point. But our political moment is pretty much non-stop crises, and there are more than enough national platforms for emotionalism.

All politicians could learn from this approach. You have no idea how refreshing it would sound, how gratefully it would be received: “I will not be patronized by my subordinates!” How people could listen again.

Potomac Watch (01/13/21): A year after his inaugural speech calling for “unity,” Joe Biden has stirred up division with a voting rights speech Mitch McConnell called “incoherent, wrong, and under his post.” So why has the President’s rhetoric become so harsh? Images: AFP/Getty Images Composite: Mark Kelly

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Ethan Gach

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